“So You’re a Photographer, Quick… Tell Me What You Do”

How’s that for a panic inducer?

So could you tell them? Say someone walks up to you at a mixer for the Art Directors club meeting, introduces himself and you realize he is one of the guys you have been trying to see for a few months. Now he is standing there, and in the distance you see someone coming up fast obviously hell-bent to talk with the guy. He asks what you do. You have approximately 5 seconds to get this guy interested enough in you that he may stick around for a few minutes to chat. And that could lead to a portfolio showing.

And here’s your chance.

What do you say?

Obviously you don’t have your print portfolio there (yes, it is on your iPhone. Right? Blackberry? You do have it though… right?), but you want to engage him for a few minutes and genuinely get to know him a bit, while introducing your self to him and along with that your work.

What do you say?

Terribly difficult isn’t it?

“Uh, I’m a photographer…” Ain’t gonna cut it.

“I shoot fashion and, uh… people, and … ” Ditto.

You need to tell them a bit about yourself, what you do, why you are special, and get them to take some sort of action.

What I am referring to is something we call an elevator pitch. It’s something we use to encapsulate what we do, and explain yourself in the briefest of instances… like an elevator ride up 4 floors. Getting the other person to remember you and even send your name on to someone they know may be interested.

In the agency days I worked with and still work with clients on developing language that can describe and define the work into a small bite of words that could lead to more discussion. Or a memorable, short moment. Sometimes I worked with clients who could not articulate what they did in a short burst. If they couldn’t explain what they did, imagine the person having it dis-explained to them. Scary.

Photographers need to have something similar. We rarely wear our portfolio on our sleeves (say…. that gives me an idea…) and there are times when pictures may not be available for perusal. Words take over. You take over.

It becomes part of your brand… that is, who you say you are. And what you show you when you show what you do backs up who you say you are. Convoluted? Not really. You are your brand and you must be able to speak to the work you want to do… especially in stressful, and off the cuff moments like described above.

To get to that place where you can prepare your “elevator pitch” or “mission statement” or brand statement, it takes a bit of introspection and planning.

(An aside here: I am in the plane heading up the coast toward Santa Cruz. We are close enough to the coast to see the beautiful demarcation of water/earth as it meanders up from LA. Looks like Santa Barbara down there about 34,000 feet. Beautiful. Hoping to see Morro Bay out my window in a moment. I love that place. – – – Oh – and there it is. Smile.

While we are on this break, I do want to mention that in two weeks I will be in New Orleans. Hope that the folks in that area take advantage of it and come on out for a workshop. More at Learn to Light.)

The planning of your elevator pitch takes shape in a series of three questions:

Who you are, what you shoot, and what makes that so special?

Got it? Great.. let’s hear your mission statement. Yeah, it isn’t really that easy. Sorry. Let’s break it down a bit.


Take some time and write down who you are as a person. Can you tell me who you are without telling me what you do? “I’m a teacher”, is not who you are. “I shoot still life” is not who you are. Are you involved, passionate, caring, driven, self-motivated, creative, on fire, over-the-hill, powerful, challenged, confused, a leader, self-absorbed, wonderfully giving…? Who are you? It is necessary sometimes, to find out who one is before one introduces oneself to others.

“A guy with a passion for all things creative, who loves his family, music, photography, design and writing, and through that creativity finds meaning in the chaos.” Guess who that is?

Describe yourself without telling us what you do. You may not use this word for word, but it helps you get focused on the critical part of who you are.

Now tell us what you do.

And describing the genre you do in dry terms is not the best thing to do either. “I’m a food shooter” doesn’t tell me that you do incredibly cool work with liquid and flaming food, and have shots “that make food look more sensual than bellydancing.” It only tells me that you do food. Then I bring into my head what I recently saw regarding food photography… and that may not be the best thing for you.

Once I was on a forum and saw a post by a photographer who had noted she shot pets. OK. I will say that a certain image popped into my brain. Chihuahua on a seamless at Petco sorta thing.

Was I surprised when I saw what Laurie Marie does with the genre of pet photography. Take a look, you may be surprised as well. I must say that the term “pet photography” may not be adequate for the exquisite portraiture she does. I do not know what Laurie’s elevator speech is these days, but I do know she is busy.

Try to be somewhat focused in this approach to what you do. Simply stating you are a photographer is not enough. Adding a genre to the designation can help to focus the message and then adding something to the genre to add context to the message, and it gets heard more readily.

For instance, being an Architectural photographer means something different to a lot of different people. But “I shoot high end residential and commercial property” gives the genre more context. And that helps define your brand as well.

You also have to articulate what makes you so much better, or worth considering when they think of photographers.

It can be a challenge to not mention gear for some at this point. Going off about megapixels and lines of resolution are not really gonna win over someone who doesn’t really care about that sort of thing. Some people refer to this as your “USP” – your unique selling proposition. What makes you different, unique, worth more, worth trying, and valuable to the listener.

Remember, when someone asks you what you do, in many situations they are really wondering what you can do for them.

You could mention a style, or a specific tool set that you use to set yourself apart. Maybe it is location. “My studio is located near the manufacturing area, and we have a cyc.” Or, “my in-house shop lets me build some pretty unique sets for advertising photography.” Find the thing that makes you unique… one-of-a-kind. This should not be price, by the way. No one wants to talk about money at this point.

We finish up the short explanation with a simple call to action. From setting an appointment to giving someone your card, a call to action is the reason you are doing all this. It is your moment to shine and be in contact with a potential buyer. At least make a good enough impression on the person that they may pass your name on to someone who would be interested in your work.

“What do you do?”

“Well I’ve always been fascinated by photography and design, so I have blended the two into an agency that specializes in the retail fashion market. We take advertising from concept to production, and our client list is pretty strong. Let me give you my card, and if you would like to know more, the web address is on there. Call me anytime and I’ll be happy to set up a presentation.”

“I make photographs that makes peoples mouths water. I love food and especially love cooking so I bring a special flair for presentation to the work I do. I would be happy so show you around my studio in downtown Phoenix if you would like. Here’s my card, take a look at my web site… and let me know if I can be of service.”

Developing a good, short explanation of what you do, how you do it and a call to action can go a long ways toward feeling a little more confidant when someone says:

“So you’re a photographer. What do you do?”

Thanks for coming along on the discussion of elevator pitches. Yeah, it ain’t lighting, I know. But it is vitally important to get to thinking about what you do… and how to explain it to someone else.

If you are planning a workshop, please check out Learn to Light for our schedule. And follow me on Twitter if you are a tweeter.

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

9 Comments

  1. This is all very true. Early on, it’s easy to get caught up in the “I am going to tailor my response to the type of work that I think he needs.” In the long run, that doesn’t work. For example, if you meet some restaurant owner and you toss out there that you like to shoot food, they might come back with “Awesome – what are some of your favorite food photographers/images/magazines/whatever”. Doh. Your bluffing, and you just got called.

    So you have to narrow your focus, and then practice putting into words a visual description that gets your point across without sounding cheesy, overly-rehearsed, etc. It is a challenge indeed.

  2. Great post. I struggle with this everyday when someone pop’s that question: “what do you do?”

    There is an additional layer of complexity here that I worry about – Do you change your elevator pitch for your specific audience? Art Director at a party is a good example, but would you give that same pitch to a random person at a bar, at a social event, or maybe on an airplane (where you don’t have any idea what the other person does – at first)?

    Yes – getting the whole pitch out quickly is great if you only have a minute, but what do you do to make it a CONVERSATION? I assume you want to get the key information out right away and hopefully spark the conversation.

    It looks like I have some homework to do…

  3. This is great advice! It applies to the about statements on our web sites as well. After reading this article I reworded mine a bit to better emphasize the brand. I’ll volunteer as a guinea pig and offer it here for feedback:

    About Ice Imaging:

    “Hi, I’m Kevin Halliburton, owner of Ice Imaging, a custom, illustrative photography studio where we solidify your concepts, messages and ideas into high impact visual stories. We specialize in freezing the core concepts of your message into solid imagery that is crystal clear in its delivery.

    Thank you for taking the time to find out more about us. Please visit our galleries to be shaken or stirred by our work, then click ‘contact’ to let us know what we can chill for you.”

  4. great advice, but I’d extend it a bit…give them your card as above, but ask for theirs and say you’ll follow up soon, after they’ve had a chance to look at your website. If you sit around and just wait for the people you’ve handed cards out to to call you, you’ll be lonely. Better to be proactive…

  5. Wow this is so true! It applies in so many areas beyond photography. I spent 25 years in the semiconductor and disk storage business and I learned my elevator speech to where I could say it in my sleep. Now that I am capturing peoples moods, desires and passions I find myself struggling for the right speech. I am sure I will someday get the right words….hopefully before I run into that Art Director!

  6. Very nice article — I’d like to add my $.02

    I think it is very hard for a generalist to say something compelling about our work. Those of us in a small market don’t often “shoot food” – we may love shooting food and have a portfolio ready to present to that client, but also shoot corporate headshots and fashion and cars and whatever pays the bills.

    My advice is to know who your target audience should be – For example, I only want to work for discerning clients that “get” my personal style of dramatic lighting and depth-realism that sets me apart from any other photographer. That’s what I talk about. If the person I’m speaking to glazes over in the first five seconds and their ears close, I know I’m talking to the wrong audience. If they seem at all interested, I hand them my card with a hot photo on the front and watch their reaction. Virtually everyone’s eyes light up and they say they’ll go to my site. I then let them talk so I know if there may be a fit, get a card and follow up if there’s any potential in the relationship.

    You have to understand yourself, it’s the only way you can speak confidently about who you are and what you do….

  7. I am going to give your situation a go. Now I did think about my answer for about 20 seconds, so maybe I blew the envelope, but here it is, extemporized, off the tongue from my gut:

    “I am an artist. I try to capture some essential aspect of being human in my art. I aim to create a work that has meaning, that is evocative, powerful and real. I know that requires taking chances, being vulnerable and risking failure. My successes speak for themselves, but to know that you will need to see that for yourself: Here is my card.”

  8. Seems I am late to the party… I’ve actually been thinking about my “elevator pitch” a lot recently as I network more and more, and am stymied by the “Uh, I’m a photographer” answer to “what do you do?”

    Mine should go something along the lines of:

    “I use my background in psychology, painting, and technology to create portraits that are technically dramatic and personally intimate and evocative”

    I’m still struggling with the exact phrasing…

  9. Words of wisdom as always! Thanks also for the link to Laurie Meehan-Elmer’s fine work…as an amateur photographer with no desire to take more from my photography than pleasure I really enjoy your work in words as well as images…Laurie Meehan-Elmer’s work will continue to be part of my ‘immersion’ in great image making along with yours and a select number of others!

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